Happiness often is little more than finding a quarter

often is little more than finding a quarter


laughter. A ray of sunshine after a hard rain. A hot cup
of coffee on a cold day. The discovery of a quarter in a
phone booth.

Happiness comes
in different hues, depending on an individual’s point
of view. When people are happy they don’t necessarily
know how happy they are. What’s more, their theories
about what would make them happy are generally inaccurate.

That’s the
conclusion of happiness guru Daniel Kahneman, the Eugene
Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of public
affairs at Princeton University, who shared his views on
happiness March 20 at the Scientia Colloquia’s Bochner

The title of
his speech was “Experience and Memory: The Cognitive
Psychology of Happiness.”

In Kahneman’s
view, people don’t know how happy they are because
happiness is so relative. In 1998, he and a colleague examined
whether people are happier in California or the Midwest.
They found no difference, although “everyone in California
and the Midwest think that people are happier in California,”
Kahneman said.

In another experiment,
Kahneman arranged for unwitting subjects to find a quarter
near a pay telephone and asked them afterward how happy
they felt.

“It was
a very strong effect,” he said, noting that most subjects
reported they were happy and that their lives in general
were going well.

“We have
to compute about happiness, and we do that on the fly,”
he said. What’s more, Kahneman said, “life circumstances
account for little on the scale of well-being.”

The “crucial
ambiguity,” he said, is that while some people are
objectively happier, that state of mind could stem from
simply adapting their perspective.

The question
of happiness requires people to recall the past and to evaluate
it, said Kahneman, a member of the American Society of Arts
and Sciences and a recipient of numerous awards and honors,
including the Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental
Psychologists and the Hilgard Award for Career Contributions
to General Psychology.

Kahneman, who
received his doctorate in psychology in 1961 from the University
of California, said the duration of an event has little
impact on how well it becomes etched in our memories.

He said there
are two ways of looking at life — through retrospective
questions and answers or by considering life as a sequence
of moments, which encompass mental content and mood.

are different degrees of being happy,” Kahneman said,
ranging from being content to mildly elevated and thrilled.

Most moments
of happiness, he added, “are lost forever. Most of
them do not leave a trace except for memorable events, and
there are 20,000 memorable events in a day.”

A tension that
arises, Kahneman said, is that the experiencing subject
“has no time to exist. All we get to keep and evaluate
are our memories. We think of our lives as a story.”

And what makes
a good story, he said, are people’s goals, hopes, fears,
challenges, successes and failures. A good ending, Kahneman
added, is crucial to how well someone remembers the story
later on in life.

Scientia is
an institute of Rice University faculty founded in 1981
by the mathematician and historian of science Salomon Bochner.
Scientia provides an opportunity for scholarly discussion
across disciplinary boundaries; its members and fellows
come from a wide range of academic disciplines.

theme for this academic year is “Taking Chances: Risk
and Randomness in Science and Society.”

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